Is Cactus A Succulent?

What is the difference between cacti and succulents? The confusion between cacti and succulents is understandable, especially looking at the similarities that about. While there are features that connect them, there are others that also set the cactus apart from other succulents.
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Cactus is a popular desert plant that has recently gained much prominence in homes. Apart from the cactus, there are succulents. In most cases, these two terms are used interchangeably, and this begs the question, are cactus succulents? To better understand this, it is only fair we understand the definition of a succulent. A succulent is any plant with the ability to store water in its juicy stems, leaves or roots during plenty to be used in time of drought.

So, is cactus a succulent? By virtue of its physical features, the cactus is a succulent. However, the word cactus is used to denote its botanical family (Cactaceae). A succulent is a broader group that includes a number of other botanical families. So simply put, all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.

This article will work to demystify the difference between cactus and succulents. It will be looking at the differences and similarities that abound between these plants.

Understanding The Difference

Cactus is derived from the word Kaktos which essentially means ‘spiny plant’. Later, the name Cactaceae was coined to identify a group of plants that exhibited peculiar traits like storing large amounts of water in their stem, hairy or prickly coverings and limited or no leaves.

The major difference between succulents and cacti is that a succulent is a broad group of families, which includes Cactaceae.

One can easily identify cacti, albeit with rare exceptions, from their leave-less appearance. This is a result of their struggle to thrive under harsh climatic conditions. Their stems are modified into pads, cylinders and joints that help store water in times of drought. The spikes and bristles come in handy for protection against herbivores. This is one of the adaptations for survival in the wild. Most of them feature brightly colored flowers, and some produce edible fruits.

It’s all in the leafs

While most succulents feature notable leaves, cacti do not have any. However, during the seedling stage, cacti have leaves, and some will sprout on new growth, albeit for a short time. With time, they shade these leaves to help avoid water loss through evaporation.  Most cacti will change shape in the course of their growth as they adjust to the prevailing conditions. They also feature accordion-like ribs that expand to accommodate more water without bursting and will contract without losing shape as the plant uses up the water.

While succulents have plumpy leaves, cacti feature sharp spines.

On the other hand, the evolution of succulents like hawthorias, aloes, echeveria and drassula happened under less severe conditions compared to cacti. Most succulents have leaves, but these are also adapted to dry climatic conditions. Their leaves would become flattened gradually by water-storing tissues. These leaves are covered with horny or waxy materials that help reduce water loss through evaporation.

Variety of climates

Most succulents can be found in desert and semi-desert areas, especially in the warmer parts of the world like Africa and Mexico. However, others like sempervivums and sedums thrive in colder regions and can be found in rocky slopes.

Most deserts of the world are home to succulents, but not all succulents are desert plants. A number of them exist in forests, mountains and near rivers, seas and lakes. For instance, in the semi-arid regions of America, Africa and Asia, most succulents thrive, but they can also be found in rain forests. The following are some of the notable succulents and their native regions:

  • Aeonium – Africa, Madeira and Canary Islands
  • Agave – The Americas
  • Cotyledon – Africa
  • Aloe- Africa, Atlantic Islands, the Mediterranean
  • Crassula – Africa
  • Dudleya – Mexico, coastal  California
  • Gasteria – South Africa
  • Echeveria –  the Amricas
  • Faucaria – South Africa
  • Kalanchoe – America, Africa and Southeast Asia
  • Sempervivum – Southern and Central Europe, North Africa

Cacti are believed to have evolved over 30 million years ago in North and South America. This explains why most cacti species are native to these regions, and it stretches from western Canada to Patagonia. On the other hand, succulents are native to every continent apart from Antarctica. The adaptability of these plants is unmatched. In fact, they can sometimes be found as epiphytes that grow as parasites to other plants.

Taking Care Of Succulents

Succulents have been known to make excellent houseplants. This is especially so considering the popularity that cacti have gained in the last few years as both garden and indoor plants. With the right propagation and potting according to their variety and family, succulents will need little attention. As long as they have access to enough sunlight, they can thrive even without frequent watering regimes.

This said, it is important to appreciate that each succulent variety has its specific care tips. However, the rule of thumb is always to ensure you have the right soil mix for your succulent. Talk to your botanist about your succulent and should be in a position to advise you on the best soil mix for your plant. Nevertheless, always ensure the soil mix is dry enough before watering.  This will help reduce cases of root rot that can be detrimental to the life of your succulent.

Water and lighting needs

Depending on the humidity, drainage and temperatures in place, watering once a week is ideal for most succulents. Always be on the lookout for signs of over-watering. These may include leaves looking mushy or soggy. In other instances, the leaves may change color.

The majority of succulents love bright light, but you should avoid placing them under direct sunlight.

Most succulents thrive best under a bright light. However, you do not necessarily have to expose your succulent to direct sunlight. Placing it by the window will do just fine. You may see the need to move them around just to see how they adapt to the various conditions. In cases where getting sunlight is a challenge, you can opt for grow lights to help offer the much-needed light for healthy growth. Some notable signs of light deficiency in succulents include leaves stretching out and pale flesh.

Propagating Succulents

Succulent can be a source of joy when grown indoors. As such, you want to have as many as possible. Luckily propagation of succulents is simple. Depending on your variety, succulents can be propagated by seeds or vegetatively.

You can propagate succulents from seeds or through vegetative propagation.

Propagating succulents from seeds can only be possible with successful pollination. While in the wilt, this would be done by wind insects and birds. However, when grown indoors, you may need to practice cross-pollination by hand to increase your chances of getting healthy seeds.

On the other hand, vegetarian propagation can be done by using cuttings, pads or offshoots of the parent plant. These would then be replanted by spurring rooting in separate containers. These cuttings would, however, require a healing period called callousing before transplanting. This helps increase the chances of rooting by avoiding the risk of rotting.

Common Succulents You Can Plant Indoors

Apart from cacti, there are multiple other succulents that can be grown indoors. The type of succulent to go for will depend on the climatic conditions and overall home décor of your indoors. Hereby some common indoor succulents:

  • Aloe Vera – This is a common succulent that can sometimes be confused for a cactus, thanks to its appearance. Apart from improving your home décor, aloe vera has been used from time immemorial to heal burns and relieve pain.
  • Burrows Tail Sedium – This succulent thrives best when grown in hanging baskets. It works perfectly with medium to high light.
  • Panda Plant  – This is a type of kalanchoe and is most popular for its soft, fuzzy leaves that help complement home décor.
  • Ponytail Palm – Often confused for a palm tree, this succulent stands out with its bulbous trunk that helps store water.  This is most ideal for busy individuals or those who travel frequently.
  • Snake Plant – This extremely hardy succulent is resistant and can handle a lot of abuse. Water sparingly with breaks in between to allow the soil to dry out.
  • Crown of thorn – This thorny succulent has gained much prominence thanks to its unique shape. Water the plant as soon as one inch of the soil feels dry. Too much dry soil, and you risk losing its leaves and flowers.
  • Pincushion Cactus –  Its name notwithstanding, the Pincushion cactus is not a true cactus but falls under general succulents. It is part of a group of around 200 ball-shaped succulents. It thieves best under extremely high light.

Cacti, just like the rest of succulents, may not need much attention, but following the common care tips will help improve their health.  Most succulents are slow-growing and will thus need the patience to reach maturity.  When grown at home, it is important to understand its ecological needs. 

While most succulents would thrive in the deserts, others do best in cold conditions. With this in mind, it becomes much easier to determine the best conditions even when grown at home. Unlike cacti, most other succulents have leaves and would make their food through photosynthesis, just like any other regular plant. As such, exposure to sunlight is vital for their survival.

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